The Incandescent Hope of Special Interests DancePunk Anthems

The Incandescent Hope of Special Interest’s Dance-Punk Anthems 

In this Rising interview, the New Orleans band discusses the delusions of American exceptionalism and what it means to make radical ideas a reality.

When I meet the members of Special Interest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn one perfect fall day, we exchange scuffed sneakers for tastefully minimal grip socks, down a round of neon blue herbal tinctures, and step into individual sensory deprivation tanks. They’re at the spa to relax and reset, seeking the concentrated thrill of temporary oblivion. Ensconced in separate tanks of saltwater, we cease to be a band and a writer on the job; perhaps we cease to be at all. Inside, there’s pink lights and Icelandic ambient selections, and after a few minutes, I turn them off and just float, drifting, pointless, like a compass needle in space.

After an hour in the dark, the quartet—Alli Logout, Ruth Mascelli, Nathan Cassiani, and Maria Elena (who just goes by Maria)—reconvenes around a sun-dappled table in the backyard of a nearby vegan café. The spread is almost comically healthy: Salads, stuffed grape leaves, oyster mushroom tacos, grassy green matcha lattes, and glowing orange carrot juice. We’re the only diners this late in the afternoon, and the vibe is so preternaturally chill that, at first, words are slow to come. Most of the band lives in New Orleans, but they’re visiting Brooklyn to talk about Endure, their third studio album and first for powerhouse English indie label Rough Trade. They are a punk band on the come-up, thankful to be sleeping in beds. 

Special Interest share a prickly sense of humor, and each member is quick to claim and grant credit for any given idea. The band’s bassist, Cassiani, suggested the sensory deprivation tank outing; he describes himself as “shy” and “reserved,” but reads more like the group’s quietly influential technician. Mascelli, on synths and drum machines, has a nervy, restless energy—he says that even the float session didn’t still his racing mind—but invariably speaks in complete thoughts. Maria, the guitarist, has the steady, unselfconscious presence of that one friend from the punk house, and when she’s finished eating, she unbuttons her pants. Logout, the frontperson, is the celebrity: a big talker and electric live performer, a vector for the kind of natural charisma that doesn’t intend to please anybody. When I saw Special Interest perform in Barcelona last summer, Logout scrambled around the stage in a fire-red jumpsuit, flaying the air and humping the monitors, crawling across the floor with the unruly passion of Genesis P-Orridge or Iggy Pop. “If you see me standing on one leg,” they say, “that means my knee’s outta place and I have to give Maria the look, like, ‘Click my knee back in.’”

Smelting the detritus of disco-punk, industrial, and no wave, Special Interest’s music is something rare in today’s world: Their songs feel big enough to accommodate the whiplashing contradictions of life in this country. Logout’s lyrics are nakedly political and profane, their presence confronting even when their voice is no louder than their bandmates’ instruments. The music is full of sirens, hydraulics, and glass underfoot. The letters of the new album’s title loom large on its cover, like the logo on a punching bag: Endure. “It’s the word that describes things the most,” Maria says. 

“It’s about carrying on and learning how to move through our own shit personally to where we can be together with other people,” Logout adds. “It’s this very long, tumultuous process. Just learning how to be.”

Special Interest germinated from the duo of Logout and Maria, who share roots in the Texas DIY scene. “When we met, we were both like, ‘We should just jam, like immediately,’” Maria recalls. The pair debuted in 2013 under the name Pregnant at Not Enough Fest, a women- and LGBTQ+-focused punk event in New Orleans organized by a mutual friend, the Black DIY activist and ceramics artist Osa Atoe. Logout played a power drill at their inaugural set, a fact that’s merged into origin myth (the tool appears for an encore on the final song of Endure). Maria came up with a new band name, inspired by the odds-and-ends category you might once have seen at a VHS rental store, and recruited Cassiani, another Texas friend, and Mascelli, a fellow New Orleans transplant, into the lineup.

A searing 2016 demo tape called Trust No Wave previewed Special Interest’s first album, Spiraling, produced by veteran New Orleans experimentalist Quintron. For their second, the band tapped local engineer James Whitten for a different, digitized sound, both sleeker and more aggressive. Released on Juneteenth 2020, The Passion Of met a rapturous subcultural reception. With roiling beats and melodies like razor blades, it exalted the stigmatized pleasures of sex on psychedelics, wicked up the legacy of dance music as Black and queer resistance, and spat out punk provocation, asking, “What happens when there’s nothing left to gentrify?”

Unable to tour behind The Passion Of in 2020, Special Interest turned around and wrote more, eventually signing with Rough Trade midway through the new record’s creation. During the blank days of the first pandemic summer, socially distanced practices in a cheap, roomy space in New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood provided a way to keep the band occupied. “Music was one thing that we could actually work on,” says Cassiani. With no live audiences, they had to rely on each other’s responses to decide what sounded best. 

“It was a dark time, and everything we were writing was dark,” Logout says. Then Mascelli hit a jagged, fluting synth phrase that lit up the room. The sound became the grimy, open-hearted pop confection “Midnight Legend,” a word of loving caution AirDropped to Telfar-toting club kids’ getting-ready playlists—and an ace in the band’s pocket when the label eventually came looking for a single. Logout asked the cult rapper Mykki Blanco to record a guest verse, though the version that appears on the album features just Logout’s vocals. “I thought it’d be fun to collab with somebody on the hip-hop side of things because there’s not too much of that element in Special Interest, but it’s really formative to me,” they say. “’Cause we’re on the label now, everybody’s like, ‘You’re trying to make mainstream music,’” they quip. “We’re still just havin’ fun—and don’t act like you don’t like this either, bitch!”

Be fucking for real, Special Interest songs seem to say. And have some hope. Even in the hardest of times, they find room for messy, complex feelings. “The pandemic has not been a monolith of emotion,” says Maria. “To me this album reflects all the notes of that period.” If the months indoors spurred you into a hot and chaotic short-term tryst: That’s “Cherry Blue Intention.” If you were forced to sell your limited time on this planet to a faceless corporate entity: That’s “Foul.” If you, like Mascelli, vividly remember the day that the Amazon homepage became a Black Lives Matter banner, here is the fiery “Concerning Peace,” with a call-and-response for the ages: “Liberal erasure of militant uprising is a tool of corporate interest and a failure of imagination,” Maria reads, answered by Logout, who bleats: “And profits off death!”

Here too are the long, icy shadows of the worst things humans know how to do. “Is love like Arab oil? Do we take take take till it’s depleted?” Logout cries near the top of “Kurdish Radio,” the smoky protest ballad that closes side one. It is partially a personal reckoning with the memory of how the War on Terror was sold to U.S. citizens. “I finally gave myself space in my adult life to really reflect on that time and the things that were being told to me, how ingrained Islamophobia still is within myself and everybody around us,” explains Logout. The song is also a spiritual investigation, tracking the repressed urges of a weaponized society. “I was thinking about love, and how we’re told to love one another, how it’s like the taking of a thing,” they continue. “I realized that being an American is just like not being accountable to anything.”

Their voice is a powerful medium, with a throaty omniscience and an actor’s gift for line readings loaded with historical rhymes. On “(Herman’s) House,” a bottom-heavy groove that was called just “House” until the band aligned it with the memory of the late Angola Three activist Herman Wallace, they call out a seductive string of words—“sweat, endure, allure, Shakur.” It feels like an enigmatic update on a title from Special Interest’s first album, a Nina Simone slogan dressed for a punk show, a Black Panther rally, a gay bar: “Young, Gifted, Black, in Leather.”

I ask if the band worries about being misunderstood, skimmed over by a general audience already numbed to outrage. Can you dance to “(Herman’s) House” if you don’t know that the house was a real project, a fantasy home Wallace designed after 30 years of solitary confinement, with a Black Panther logo at the bottom of the swimming pool? Can you still dance after you find out? Special Interest are not concerned: What you know is less important than what you’re prepared to do. 

“Living in New Orleans, living through hurricanes, you see what it is gonna be like when the power goes out,” says Mascelli. “You have to go down the street, make sure the old guy who lives alone has water. You have to, on a really small-scale level, be involved with the people around you.” Small scale, on the street, like how Endure’s final song, “LA Blues,” begins: with an echoing beat and long verses that follow sordid characters through a vomitous Bourbon Street slurry. As the music builds, Logout ascends to a crisis of faith, demanding to know whether endurance works at all. “Do we really get stronger? Or just stay the same?” they cry. “Oh, I have to believe, I have to believe/That things will change.”

Photo Assistant: Philip Bergevin. Production Assistant: Nafisah Crumity. Jewelry by Rings Bijules (on Alli and Ruth).